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Road to Emmys Paved with Good Intentions — and Top Marketing Strategy

The race to the Emmys has never felt more crowded or competitive. With 455 scripted television series on the air in 2016 and growing, just getting a nomination is about as mathematically unlikely as winning the lottery.

And still networks and streaming services keep playing the “For Your Consideration” game. Billboards blanketed Hollywood during Emmy voting season, and trade magazines’ online and print pages remain full of Emmy ads. Creepy red-caped handmaids appeared outside of Los Angeles coffee shops to remind voters of The Handmaid’s Tale. Netflix mounted a full-on 24,000-square-foot experience intended to woo voters, and that seemed to work as the service netted 91 nominations, including three best drama and two best comedy nods.

“It’s an arms race in terms of spending on programming right now. That there’s a subsequent arms race on marketing and awards is inevitable. It’s deafening,” said Craig Erwich, Hulu senior vice president and head of content. “We have to make sure that the marketing is as creative as the show is. Look at what we did for The Handmaid’s Tale, the activations that we did — you have to be creative. Money alone is not going to get you results; you also have to be inspired. That’s just the table stakes these days.”

All of that time, money and effort brings back far more to networks, services and shows than just awards hardware.

“I think there is a return on investment for brands with Emmy nominations and wins. Emmys represent brand approval,” said Eric Schrier, president of original programming at FX and FX Productions, which scored 55 Emmy nominations this year for shows such as Atlanta, Fargo, Feud: Bette and Joan, Better Things and The Americans.

“The Emmy sits right up at the top of the awards food chain,” said Warren Littlefield, who was president of NBC Entertainment from 1990-98 and now produces such Emmy-nominated series as Fargo and The Handmaid’s Tale. “I think that in this age of infinite choice, the branding that comes with Emmy nominations and wins is more important that ever before. These awards are a navigational device directing viewers to your show,” he said.

The influx of marketing money into the nominations and awards process is more intense than ever this year, making it feel like smaller networks are at a distinct disadvantage. But all awards remain subjective and that means — marketing be damned — everyone’s got a shot until the winners are announced.

“I don’t know that it’s ever a level playing field,” said Jennifer Salke, NBC president of entertainment. “We have to look at what we are doing and we are really truly striving for hits. A hit is This Is Us or The Voice. Our No. 1 priority is to create big shows that break through culturally. If we can get awards recognition on top of that, that’s great too.”

Often, those two goals do not intersect — TV’s biggest hits are often not Emmy’s darlings. But sometimes fate intervenes, as it did for This Is Us.

This is … Emmy?

The series is the first Big Four broadcast drama to be nominated for outstanding drama since CBS’ The Good Wife in 2011 (although PBS’ Downton Abbey was nominated best drama every year from 2012-16).

Getting a broadcast drama into the mix has become increasingly challenging as well-funded new players such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have entered the race and taken a page from the HBO playbook, which was again this year’s Emmy nomination leader with 111. These streaming services and cable networks have no broadcast standards to adhere to, they can make as many or as few episodes as they want and they can premiere their shows whenever they want, with no specific schedules to fill. And Emmysare important to these up-and-comers, who are looking to grow subscribers.

“Broadcast networks have to make twice the episodes at half the cost,” said Jonnie Davis, president of creative affairs for Twentieth Century Fox, the studio that produces This Is Us as well as fellow Emmy nominees Modern Family, Feud: Bette and Joan, Genius, The Americans and Homeland. “It would be such an empowering message for the community to have a broadcast network get the win.”

This Is Us sprang from the mind of Dan Fogelman, who came to Twentieth from ABC less than three years ago. He had already been working on This Is Us, which is inspired by his own family and was originally intended as a movie, but, as he told Davis, “this thing wants to be a television show.”

From the get-go, the studio was excited about Fogelman’ s highly personal project. “I knew we had something great on our hands three seconds after I read the last sentence of the pilot script,” Davis said. “And everyone on our team spent the weekend calling and emailing each other after reading it.”

Audiences responded immediately to the show, with NBC’s upfront trailer for it going immediately viral with an estimated more than 100 million views across Facebook, YouTube and other digital platforms.

The pilot didn’t disappoint either, with 10 million viewers tuning in. By season’s end, This Is Us was broadcast TV’s top drama, upsetting Fox’s Empire with a 4.8 full-season ratings average among adults 18-49 and 15.3 million viewers tuning in.

Being broadcast TV’s top-rated drama with a two-year renewal might be enough, but an Emmy win would be the capper on a dream year for the series as it kicks off season two on Tuesday, Sept. 26.

“We are huge fans of network TV and entertainment that’s for a mass audience that really speaks to the country,” said Isaac Aptaker, co-showrunner with Elizabeth Berger on This Is Us. “We are beyond thrilled to be recognized by the country and by the critics and our own creative community.

“The process of making a broadcast drama is really hard — the pace, the number of people weighing in, the limitations on what content you are allowed to tell stories about makes it really hard to compete with the phenomenal prestige shows that don’t have the burden of content restrictions.”

Contending with all of those restrictions and still breaking out makes the Golden Globe, Emmy, TCA and other awards nominations and wins all the sweeter.

“We’re always happy to have the love from the Emmys or the Globes or whoever it is,” said Salke. “In the past, we’ve seen awards help a show or not help a show. What Emmys do are put the show in the spotlight it deserves and gives it that endorsement. It’s a sign of great quality and great storytelling. It’s meaningful to us and it’s meaningful to the creators.”

Working Overtime for a Winning ‘Handmaid’s’ Tale

It’s widely accepted that there’s no secret formula to producing a highly rated, critically acclaimed, award-winning TV show, but that doesn’t mean people don’t set out to follow one.

The case of The Handmaid’s Tale is as close as it comes to writing a strategic playbook on how best to get to Emmy. Simply put, the plan was to take a critically acclaimed piece of literature, hire a television actress with the highest of pedigrees, put the creative in the best possible hands and let the magic happen.

But of course, none of that was simple, and success was never guaranteed.

MGM had long owned the rights to the novel by Margaret Atwood, and had developed a pilot for Showtime with Ilene Chaiken, now an executive producer on Empire. Showtime ultimately passed on the project.

But MGM persisted, and found a willing partner in Hulu. “The original creative intention of the series was to honor and realize Margaret’s novel, which has an incredible story of human survival at the center of it,” said Erwich.

However, with Chaiken off doing Empire, the project needed a new showrunner. After an exhaustive search, Hulu and MGM selected Bruce Miller, a TV veteran who’s produced such series as ER, Everwood, Medium, Eureka and The 100. There was initial resistance to Miller because he was not a woman, but he wrote two scripts and had a clear vision for the show.

“Bruce first read the book when he was in a new literature class at Brown,” said Littlefield. “He had gone back to the book many times in his life. The wisdom, knowledge and reverence for Margaret’s work were very much present in what he presented. That was the bet we were going to make. Ultimately, that was a really visionary choice.”

Showrunner secured, Hulu launched its search for the handmaid. “You don’t have The Handmaid’s Tale unless you have the handmaid,” said Erwich.

Elisabeth Moss topped both Hulu and MGM’s wish lists to star in the role, but Moss wasn’t a slam-dunk. Neither she nor her representatives were sure they wanted her to commit to a multi-year series. They had to be convinced, and that’s where Littlefield came in.

Littlefield had worked with Noah Hawley and FX to shepherd Fargo to critical acclaim and Emmy wins. Moss’ team at WME thought he might be the right guy to ensure their client — who has starred in such Emmy-anointed series as NBC’s The West Wing, AMC’s Mad Men and Sundance’s Top of the Lake — would be protected if she agreed to a multiyear deal.

“I did a two-hour conference call with Lizzie and we agreed that we wanted to do this together,” Littlefield said. “She would commit to the series and I would be there in an active way. We were both pretty knocked out with what Bruce Miller had created.

“I’m a vision chaser. I try to find artists who have a really specific vision and then my job is to protect it, fulfill it and help deliver it. When you find it in a writer/creator/showrunner, it’s a beautiful, magical thing,” said Littlefield. “The process requires 100 very big decisions and 1,000 little decisions but they all inform the content that you ultimately present to the audience.”

The production team assembled in Toronto and shot the show. Hulu was so wowed by what it saw that it wanted to make a big bet: an ad in the Super Bowl.

“You can only have a great Super Bowl spot if you have a great show,” said Erwich. “We knew we had something and we wanted to make the biggest coming-out for the show that we could.”

Beyond just buying the $5 million spot, Hulu also placed a second, even more unlikely, bet: it would also take an ad in overtime, even though to that point the Super Bowl had never gone into overtime.

Almost every American television watcher knows what happened next: the New England Patriots came back from an impossible deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in overtime. And the first spot coming out of that overtime: The Handmaid’s Tale.

“I had called my friends at Fox Sports and said ‘I really need you to accept our spot because we pushed the boundaries a little bit,’” said Littlefield. And then he made another ask: “The moment you cut to black after overtime, I want to come straight up on The Handmaid’s Tale.”

When it all came down exactly as they had discussed, “they had to peel me off the ceiling at the party I was at,” said Littlefield.

One can argue about the efficacy of 30-second spots, but Hulu saw immediate results: “Hulu put up millions of dollars for the opportunity to put that out there and literally from that day, people started signing up for Hulu, based on those spots,” said Littlefield.

From there, Hulu increased its marketing budget for the show by 40% headed into the April 26 premiere. “Hulu continued to scream and shout in every possible way to voice their support,” said Littlefield. “That’s what you have to do in a world where there are unbelievable choices. The current quality and the quantity of choice has never been matched in television.”

Auteur-Driven Television

Another newcomer that made a big critical splash in 2016 was FX’s Atlanta, created, produced by and starring Donald Glover, who’s currently in London playing Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Han Solo Star Wars prequel.

The route Atlanta took to Emmy is practically 180-degrees away from the carefully plotted-out plan for The Handmaid’s Tale.

“I don’t think you can engineer any TV show to get Emmys or win critical acclaim,” said FX’s Schrier. “Television is an art form like film is an art form. You can’t manufacture art. You can put a lot of great elements together and hope it turns into something great. You can’t just throw money at it and make great television.”

With regard to Atlanta, Glover came in with a script and some very specific ideas about what he wanted to do, including having his brother, Stephen, on his writing staff; using Hiro Murai, the director of the videos for songs under Glover’s stage name, Childish Gambino; and producing most of the show from his home.

“Since Donald had never done television before, we were looking to support him with a director and writing staff. But he didn’t want that. He had a really specific vision and point of view he wanted to relay and that wasn’t a point of view that was on television. It goes back to our tagline — Fearless — and that’s what we get excited about.”

Atlanta went on to be FX’s highest-rated first-season comedy in its history, and the highest-rated scripted comedy on cable, with many critics proclaiming it 2016’s best show.

Glover is the latest creative to benefit from FX’s hands-off approach to talent, which has allowed the network to foster an auteur-driven environment.

“The way we work with talent is that we’re their creative and business partners,” said Schrier. “From a creative standpoint, we try to understand someone’s intent and then create an environment where they can do the best work that they can.”

That can be a tough assignment: “Noah Hawley needs a different environment than Louis C.K or Donald Glover or Zach Galifianakis or Pamela Adlon,” said Schrier. “But the way I see my job is to take really creative people and create a place for them.”

For Hawley, the creator of both Fargo, which in its third season received 16 Emmy nominations, and Legion, Emmy has been more than just an award.

“To be recognized as we have with the volume of awards, especially Emmys, has been hugely impactful both on me as a creator but it also has impacted my career and these shows,” Hawley said. “No one should ever expect anything. The quality of television is only getting better and the number of great shows is only getting greater. You just can’t predict any of it, but it feels good when you are recognized.”

Emmys Still Important After All These Years

For other shows, Emmy nominations and wins are almost a given after years of excellence. That’s the case for HBO’s Veep, which has been nominated outstanding comedy all six seasons that it’s aired and won for the past two seasons. The show’s star, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is going for her sixth-consecutive Emmy win as outstanding actress in a comedy and her eighth Emmy in the category.

“The Emmys are a wonderful thing,” said David Mandel, Veep’s executive producer. “I’m so proud of winning one and I would of course love to win another. But Julia and I see eye-to-eye on this: If you aren’t going to try to make the funniest show possible then what’s the point? The Emmys are a lovely acknowledgement that that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Mandel also perhaps has less on the line than splashy newcomers such as This Is Us, The Handmaid’s Tale and Atlanta — after six seasons, Veep has proven itself.

“Whether we win a third one or not, I’m not sure you would see any demonstrable rise in viewership,” said Mandel. “I don’t believe we will see a bump but if we were to lose, I don’t think people would abandon us either.”

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Paige Albiniak
Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.